In January 2016, David Cameron promised, as part of a new ‘blitz’ on poverty, to rebuild one hundred of the worst council estates in the country – the so-called ‘sink estates’ of ‘brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals’. (1) There were plenty of people to point out the lies (let’s put this bluntly) that lay behind this latest PR announcement but to many it would have seemed strangely familiar too – another retread (like the Right to Buy announcement of the 2015 general election) of 1980s Thatcherism.
The appointment of Michael Heseltine to head the new ‘estate regeneration advisory panel’ completed the echo. It was Heseltine, as Secretary of State for the Environment (in John Major’s government), who announced the selection in December 1991 of one such ‘sink estate’, Castle Vale in Birmingham, as the latest candidate for an earlier iteration of Cameron’s idea, the Housing Action Trust (HAT) scheme.
The estate is usually claimed as a shining example of the success of this earlier phase of estate regeneration and it has (as we shall see) some very good publicists to make the case. Although it provided a decent home to many of its first-generation residents (generally coming from far worse accommodation in the slum clearance areas of Aston and Nechells), Castle Vale was never a showpiece estate and by the later seventies it was seen as epitomising all that was wrong with large-scale and predominantly high-rise peripheral estates of its type. The Castle Vale HAT was established in June 1993, and since then much has changed, by nearly all accounts for the better. Let’s examine the narrative.
We’ve looked at the beginnings of this story before. In the interwar period, Birmingham had a council house building record second to none but in 1946 over half the city’s 283,611 homes still lacked a separate bathroom and some one in ten were back-to-back. The decision was taken (against local tradition) to build high, seen as the only way to maintain appropriate densities in the inner-city. More surprisingly perhaps, high-rise solutions were adopted in the city’s suburbs too. Almost two-thirds of Birmingham’s 464 tower blocks came to be built along or beyond the city’s ring road, justifying the soubriquet Saucer City by which it came to be known. Thirty-four of these blocks were built in Castle Vale.
This hadn’t been the intention. In 1960, the Council acquired the land of the 375 acre redundant Castle Bromwich airfield. The City Architect, AG Sheppard Fidler, drew up a plan for a Radburn-style layout (of traffic arteries and cul-de-sac feeder roads, separating cars and people) which placed neighbourhood blocks of housing, shops and offices around communal green spaces. Sheppard Fidler had been Chief Architect at Crawley and brought such New Town sensibilities to his planning.
The City Council, however, was interested in building big and bold and less concerned with the niceties. When his plans were rejected – the last straw in a long-running battle – Sheppard Fidler resigned. A second plan, envisaging a population of 20,000 based on spines of high-rise flats along the length of the estate, was adopted instead. (2)
Construction began in 1964 and was largely complete by 1969. A settlement of around 4800 homes emerged, housing at peak nearly 11,000. Unusually for the time, around 30 per cent of homes were built for owner occupation but, of the 3400 council homes, over half were in blocks of over five storeys. (3) Seventeen of these were laid out along Farnborough Road on the estate’s periphery and eight (the so-called Centre 8) in the middle of the estate. Two local shopping centres, five schools, two churches, a swimming pool and other community facilities completed the estate.
All seemed well in these early years. Geoff Bateson’s history records ‘a growing list of thriving community activities’ and states:
Crime rates were lower than many other areas. Turnover of residents was small. People wanted to be there and wanted to stay there.
Sue Spicer moved to a flat in the Centre 8 blocks in 1969: (4)
It was a huge improvement on our house in Aston. We had an indoor toilet, and there was so much green space. Mobile butchers and grocers came to our door. It seemed like Utopia.
Others speak of misgivings. As new families arrived, at one point, a third of the estate’s population was under 14 and some questioned the suitability of high-rise accommodation for many. (5) Others spoke of the isolation of the estate. Theoretically well-connected (major roads and two railways lines joined it to the city), at six miles from the centre and separated by those same roads and railways, it could still feel distant.
Pat Smith, a health worker on the estate from the late 1960s, argued:
People felt unsettled, on the edge. Many had come from the old back-to-backs, places with strong social ties. Castle Vale was a shock to the system. The lack of safe play space and the cost of under-floor heating were major bones of contention. People were used to coal fires which were much cheaper to run. But housing was the focal point of discontent.
At looking at what went wrong, we can begin with the construction flaws that bedevilled the estate from its early years. The decision to use a Bison Wallframe system used by local builders Bryants (with whom, shall we say, certain officers and members enjoyed a close relationship) seems quixotic and partly dependent at least on the fact that the Council had pre-ordered a large number of Wallframe components from Bison and needed somewhere to put them (though the broader contemporary support for system-building should not be forgotten). (6)
Problems of water penetration though windows and faulty joints were found as early as 1967. Some Bryants-built low-rise blocks suffered from cold bridging in roof members. In 1974, when a London swimming pool roof built of high alumina cement collapsed, news that some of the Centre 8 blocks used the material reached residents although the Council had decided to monitor (pending major structural repairs that would be necessary in the future) rather than remediate. Scaffolding erected around the affected blocks in 1985 remained until their demolition in 1994.
The combination of design and build problems and council inaction was toxic to the estate’s reputation. It became unpopular and, as such, a place where the Council placed the most vulnerable housing applicants who lacked choice and faced immediate need. According to one resident, Castle Vale’s ‘problems began when people were moved here who didn’t want to be here’. Another, who moved to the estate after separating from her husband in 1991, describes it as ‘a dumping ground full of single parents, alcoholics, and the mentally ill’. (7)
It’s an unsympathetic turn of phrase but it captures the emerging tensions between longer-established tenants and new people moving in, often younger and single, often with particular problems. The number of single person households doubled after 1981, families halved.
The rest is a familiar litany of the issues which faced so-called ‘sink estates’ up and down the country by the 1980s. Crime and fear of crime rose – by 1992 it was claimed that 41 per cent of Castle Vale’s residents were victims of crime and 55 per cent afraid to go out at night. Some blamed elements of the estate’s design for this: the HAT succinctly summarised the prevailing ‘defensible space’ theories of the day: (8)
the physical design of the estate…means that public and private domains are ill-defined, communal areas are not overlooked or supervised, and there is an intricate maze of ill-lit alleyways, making escape from the scene of crime or vandalism very easy.
To others, of course, this wasn’t theory: (9)
When we were kids we were proud to come from the Vale, it had a feared reputation. There were alleyways everywhere and we knew them like the back of our hand. You used to get cars squeezing down the narrow alleyways, trying to get away from the police.
The criminality and antisocial behaviour was real enough, I’ll only add – like a cracked record – that it didn’t just occur on estates designed like Castle Vale but it did occur on very differently laid-out estates with a similar range of social problems.
Joblessness reached 26 per cent (against a Birmingham average of 19 per cent) as local employment opportunities fell and the B35 postcode became increasingly stigmatised. And – always, to me, the most powerful and poignant index of inequality – people died earlier: life expectancy on the estate stood at 68 compared to the national average of 76. (10) That scaffolding around the Centre 8 blocks was both mark and metaphor of the estate’s dissolution.
It was obvious something needed to be done but, as demands rose in the 1980s, the City Council found its hands increasingly tied by the public spending curbs imposed by the Conservative government’s cuts to the Housing Investment Programme.
Looking back on this time, the then local MP Robin Corbett, who would become a major supporter of the HAT, recalled: (11)
I was absolutely appalled by what I saw, an estate of tower blocks like giant battery cages. It was a civic pigsty. It was clear that Birmingham City Council didn’t have the funds to make the necessary improvements.
But central government did. We’ll look at the story of the HAT in next week’s post.
(1) Press release, ‘Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Prime Minister pledges to transform sink estates’ 10 January 2016
(2) See Geoff Bateson, A History of Castle Vale (2005) and Thomas Deckker (ed) Modern City Revisited (2005)
(3) Richard Turkington, ‘Regenerating Large Housing Estates: Setting the Agenda at Castle Vale, Birmingham’, International Conference Housing in Transition, Piran, Slovenia, 3-5 September 1997 Conference Proceedings
(4) This and the quotation which follows are drawn from Adam Mornement, No Longer Notorious – the Revival of Castle Vale, 1993-2005 (Castle Vale Housing Action Trust, 2005)
(5) Carl Chinn, Homes for People: 100 Years of Council Housing in Birmingham (1991)
(6) As argued in Phil Ian Jones, ‘The Rise and Fall of The Multi-Storey Ideal: Public Sector High-Rise Housing in Britain 1945-2002, with Special Reference to Birmingham’, PhD thesis, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Birmingham, 2003.
(7) Both quotations drawn from Mornement, No Longer Notorious
(8) Castle Vale Housing Action Trust, Castle Vale Masterplan Written Statement, September 1993
(9) Michael Lutwyche, Hardcore (2008)
(10) Max Wind-Cowie, Civic Streets: the Big Society in Action (Progressive Conservatism Project, Demos, 2010)
(11) Quoted in Mornement, No Longer Notorious